Rugby World Cup Preview: Wallabies emerge as top contender

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All four of this weekend’s matches feature a European team against a team from the Southern Hemisphere. So, which half of the globe plays better rugby?

Since the event began in 1987, the Webb Ellis Cup has been carried below the equator six out of seven times, and according to oddsmakers, will most likely arrive once again on one of the shores of the Tasman Sea. But before anyone breaks out the bubble wrap to ship the trophy Down Under, there’s a few teams standing in the way.

Ireland vs Argentina: (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Sunday @ 8am ET.)

Ireland began this World Cup aiming to exorcise the ghosts from the past. But, for the men of the Emerald Isle, this year’s team is being haunted by injuries. Jared Payne’s foot fracture has forced a midfield scramble, and the irreplaceable captain, Paul O’Connell needs to be…replaced. Pivot Johnny Sexton may be mentally prepared to face the Pumas, but it’s his groin tear that might betray him. To make matters worse, openside flanker Sean O’Brien received a citation for going “Rocky Balboa” on French lock Pascal Pape’s midsection and will miss the most important game of his life. In a narrative that reads much like that of Wales, Ireland simply refuses to submit when the chips are down, even if they must use their reserves to get the job done. This weekend, expect the Irish pack to be targeted. Beating Argentina will fall largely on the shoulders of the deep three and another rock solid performance by fullback Rob Kearney.

Watch the Rugby World Cup semifinals on Oct. 24 on NBC

Argentina began their tournament by keeping the All Blacks off balance at Wembley, taking a lead into halftime, and keeping the World Champs honest well into the 2nd half. Argentina’s success is no fluke. For decades, their bajada scrum technique was studied and emulated. Their oxen in the front have always dispensed their own form of Latin justice, and will go blow for blow with the Irish limestone across from them. The difference these days for the Pumas is in their backline. The potency of the Argentinean attack is now complimented by the solid tackling of their midfield. Juan Imhoff has etched his name among the world’s best wings.

If the Pumas can neutralize the Irish pack, expect this battle to be won or lost in the air.

Australia v Scotland: (Twickenham Stadium, Sunday @11am ET)

Australia is a different sort of team under Michael Cheika. Their confident swagger is hidden by a layer of humility and team sacrifice that has tamed even the likes of Quade Cooper. Players like Izzy Folau, David Pocock and Bernard Foley deserve the spotlight, but they refuse to be attracted to its luster (Sorry UK readers, lustre.) As this event has showcased the primacy of backrow play, this Aussie team has stolen the show. When Scotland gets frustrated by the wall of Wallabies in front of them, they’ll mistakenly go to the air only to find the world’s most punishing fullback, Israel Folau.

Scotland will need some help on Sunday: a kind bounce of the ball, prayers, a magic spell from a Druid… They could be in trouble. This is a team that, during pool play, was losing to the USA and Samoa at halftime, so consistency isn’t really their thing. But, they’ve got their backs against the wall, and that makes them dangerous (see Braveheart). It’s the quarterfinals and this kilted army hasn’t made the semi-finals in twenty-four years. They are not without weapons, though, with devastating pace and size on the wings, and a tricky little fullback. They are good at winning ugly in the rain, so double down if the skies open up. If this team can pull off a victory on Sunday, Coach Vern Cotter will be heralded as a saint from the Borders to the Highlands. There’s a chance…